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Retail sales flat in January – Commerce Dept.

Washington -- Held in check by sliding car sales, overall U.S. retail sales were unexpectedly flat in January, unchanged from their December level, making it the worst performance since a 0.2% drop in October, the U.S. Department of Commerce reported.

Analysts had been expecting a 0.3% increase as consumers redeemed holiday gift cards. But acting as a drag on total numbers, car sales tumbled by 1.3% during January, offsetting solid gains in most other retail channels, including furniture and home furniture stores, where sales rose by 0.8%.

Showing surprising strength were the nation's department stores, the month's big winner, with a 1.4% increase in sales, helped by sales of winter clothing once cold weather finally set in, and getting a further boost from clearance events. Clothing & accessories were also at the top of the leader board with a 1.0% increase.

Other strong performers were building material and garden supply outlets, up 0.8%, and grocery stores and health & personal care stores, both up 0.6%.

Laggards, along with car dealers, were electronics and appliance stores, down 1.2% once the spate of holiday sales of big-screen TVs subsided. Gas stations were off by 0.7% as prices at the pump subsided.

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